by Mike Brotherton
Cover Artist: Daniel Docio
Review by Karen Burnham
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765311252
Date: 04 March 2008 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Spider Star joins the grand tradition of pairing hard SF with xenoarcheology. It has millions of years of history and a whole universe worth of hard physics. Combine all that with a dire threat, exploration, and some horrific encounters with aliens, and readers will certainly get their fair share of "sense of wonder" from this book. The main characters are a little hard to root for, being rather insecure individuals, but reading about a team of dedicated scientists working together to explore new things is enjoyable. Humans have colonized another star system, one that seems to have been abandoned eons ago by its original inhabitants, dubbed "Argonauts." An archaeological expedition to one of the moons sets off a long-buried doomsday device, one that may eventually destroy the main habitable planet. An old Argonaut children's tale may hold the clue to the colonists' survival, so an expedition is mounted to travel to a distant system.
At first Manuel Rusk, an up-and-coming commander in the Specialist Corp (think NASA) is given charge of the mission. Then an old Scout, Frank Klingston, the man who made first contact with living aliens, is convinced to come out of retirement and head the mission. The situation is ripe for tension, but as they explore a new "dark matter" planet and danger mounts, they try to do what's best for the colonists back home.
Unfortunately, a lot of hardship is in store for the crew as they finally meet real, live aliens.
The author spends a lot of time inside the heads of the two main characters. Frank is torn by love of his family, duty to his planet, and love of exploration. He initially turns down the chance to go, deciding that his main responsibility lies with his family and that exploration and alien contact is a young man's game. Eventually, as the doomsday device strikes closer to home, he decides that he must do everything in his power to try to thwart it, even if that means abandoning his family. This was a hard choice for me to agree with: I was so impressed by his initial wise (and atypical) decision to stay home that I was particularly disappointed when he changed his mind.
Rusk, on the other hand, is a little power-hungry. He sometimes wishes for Klingston's downfall, and seems to let his own ambition get in the way of the goals of the mission at times. He's a somewhat realistic, but unsympathetic, character.
The time not spent inside those guys' heads is spent in flights of hard SF fancy. We've got multi-armed aliens, dark-matter universes, plasma bolts shooting out of the sun, five (count 'em!) methods of propulsion to get the exploration ship to the dark-matter planet and another one to get them home, and physics experiments with multi-million-year durations.
Brotherton, an astrophysicist by trade, brings a lot of verve and excitement to these passages, reminding one of the simple gee-whiz coolness that good hard SF can express.
As a character study this book is lacking, and the ending is improbably sunny. However, the hard SF core of the narrative is enjoyable for everyone who's ever read a science article and thought, "That's really, really cool."